Saturday, January 31, 2015

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American Duchess In The News!

I was interviewed by a local news network last week, and here's the little video!

It's another behind-the-scenes look at our home business. I have a tendency to say stupid things on camera, so I'm glad they, uh, edited those out, haha. It's pretty spot-on, though our majority customer group is *not* stage/film/opera, but you ladies - hobbyists, reenactors, interpreters, and historical seamstresses.

I hope you enjoyed another little insight - messy desk, purple hair, funky old shoes :-).
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Thursday, January 29, 2015

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Behind the Scenes of our 2014 Winter Photo Shoot

Last November Chris and I set up a photo shoot with first-time model Anna McIlwee, who was to be our Siberian Snow Princess in a beautiful winter landscape.

Trouble was, no winter landscape was to be had. Photos in the snow can be difficult to do well, and I had a strong vision for imagery we just couldn't achieve with our local landscape and uncooperative weather.  So what did we do? Well here's a behind-the-scenes look at our most conceptual photoshoot yet...

We set up a simple grey backdrop and some lights in our living room and had Anna pose with various props. I then put that Bachelor of Fine Arts to work and carefully comped her into a snowy fantasy landscape, adjusting color, contrast, and adding snowflakes.

Here you can see the grey paper backdrop, stands, and lights set up in our living room
I wasn't exactly sure how it would all come out in the end, but I am so happy with the final result, and I hope you have enjoyed the images and behind-the-scenes video as well. :-)

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Auditioning for the Donner Party

Just on a lark, a few of us Great Basin Costume ladies went to an audition for a Donner Party documentary filming this year. We were in costume and all got callbacks, which happened today.

I auditioned for Margaret Reed, who was 32 when she set out across the country as part of the Donner-Reed party. Here she is later in life, after surviving The Ordeal:

I'd be happy to play Margaret Reed, who kept her entire family alive without the help of her husband James, who had been banished from the wagon train earlier in the expedition. The Reeds did not resort to cannibalism, and later settled in San Jose, where I went to school and walked down Reed Street every day to get to class.

I was pretty crap at my lines, having no acting experience whatsoever. We were asked to dress in costume if we had them, so this is what I wore:

At least I looked the part! Kindof...!
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Monday, January 26, 2015

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Late 1860s at the P.E.O Sisterhood's Founder's Day Luncheon

This past weekend I attended a lovely event where a few members of our local costuming group, Great Basin Costume Society, were invited to dress in 1860s costume to represent the founders of the P.E.O. Sisterhood, a national philanthropic organization that supports women's education.

The sisterhood was founded in 1869, but the closest I could get was my recent Purple People Eater day dress with the gored skirt. I finished the elliptical hoop and a dedicated petticoat (not shown) the night before the event, and am pleased that it's done its job, and saved me from the dreaded "lampshade hoop."

I hope you enjoy these few snaps of the whole ensemble put together - photos courtesy of my Mom <3
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Friday, January 23, 2015

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A Mid-to-Late 1860s Elliptical Hoop Skirt

One of the things that became obvious with my purple 1860s gown was that my underpinnings were no longer doing the job.

Due to shortage of fabric, I cut my 1860s skirt in gores, perfectly period for the second half of the 1860s, but what I didn't do was make the correct hoop skirt for the job - an elliptical hoop, rather than a basic round cage crinoline.

This lack of correct hoopage caused the skirt to drape funny, and also resulted in horrible lampshade skirt, since my round hoop didn't have a flounce at the hem, nor did my petticoat. All of these added up to one verdict: it was time to make a proper hoop.

So I fissed and fussed around on the internet for awhile, too stubborn to just order the right pattern, and came up with a plan for making my own. (ladies, just order the Laughing Moon Lady's Hoops and Bustles Pattern - 1856 - 1900 pattern and save yourself the pain). Luckily it appears to have been a success:

Elliptical hoop, needing a bit of adjustment still for a smooth silhouette

I can see where I need to adjust the hoops a bit to create that nice smooth line. And as always, the Ugly Puffer makes an appearance to help create the right shape:

Tonight's project (before tomorrow's event) will be to make a proper floor-length flounced petticoat to further fill and puff and smooth. The one here is not long or flouncy enough, though it does the job in a pinch:

A stand-in all-purpose petticoat, soon to be replaced with a full-length flounced petticoat
The final output is nice, though, and the issues appear to have been solved. I'm still not 100% sold on this particular silhouette, but at least it's looking more like it should now...

...but it all works together!

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Sunday, January 18, 2015


Costuming Books from Christmas 2014

I know we're well into 2015 already, and Christmas is a distant, fading memory, but I forgot to share with you the books I received as gifts and also found in England:

From Mr. Chris and my brother and sister, two books that have been on my list for a long time.

The Harper's Bazar Book is a massive volume of fashion plates covering a third of the 19th century. It's an excellent resource reference, though does not include patterns or that sort of thing. I can never get enough books like this one, though - having material to cross-reference is always a good thing.

The other book, The Basics of Corset Building, is a beginner's guide to making Victorian corsets. Though I've made many types of corsets, I'm crap at Victorian corsets. I feel I need to start from the beginning and really get a good step-by-step handle on this to fully understand how to work this type of garment, so I can't wait to get into this book and improve my feeble skills.

These books above are from the Lady Lever Art Gallery, a wonderful museum that had a small exhibit of Downton Abbey costumes while we were there, hence the book (apparently not available on Amazon).

Paired with the film's costumes were several original antique garments from the same period, from the National Museums Liverpool collections. I thought this made the exhibit rather multi-dimensional, with the reproductions right alongside the extant gowns with local provenance.

Gown by T & S Bacon, Liverpool, c. 1910-1912. Lady Lever Art Gallery
One of the extant Liverpoolian gowns on display - absolutely stunning. Made by T&S Bacon, Bold Street, Liverpool, c. 1910-12 
Gown by T & S Bacon, Liverpool, c. 1910-1912. Lady Lever Art Gallery

Gown, Liverpool, c. 1910-1912. Lady Lever Art Gallery
Another of the extant Liverpool gowns on display with the Downton Abbey costumes
So, of course, I got the catalog for the collection from which the gowns came, "Mrs. Tinne's Wardrobe," which you can purchase here, and rounded it all out with the Lady Lever museum catalog with all the collection artworks within, again available from the Lady Lever bookstore online.

Only a few of these books appear to be on Amazon, so I highly recommend you go to the Lady Lever Gallery in Port Sunlight, and enjoy it for yourselves!
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Friday, January 16, 2015

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"Renoir" Civil War Photo Shoot with Eras of Enchantment

Last October I had the opportunity to shoot with one of my regular, gorgeous models, Liza. You might remember her from our Gibson and Astoria shoots last year.

This shoot was special, though, featuring Liza and her two sons, Julian and Nevan, all in the clothing that would have been worn in our local area in the 1860s. So often we have trouble finding locations here in Northern Nevada that could pass for Europe or New England. It was nice this time to be able to use the beauty of our high desert landscape in correct historical context.

Models: Liza, Julian, and Nevan McIlwee
Costumes: Eras of Enchantment
Footwear: "Renoir" Civil War Button Boots by American Duchess
Photography: Lauren Stowell
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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

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Mademoiselle Guimard in Turkish...or Chinese...Costume

In my journey concerning The Turque thus far, I've learned that contemporary French terminology surrounding this type of gown, and other orientalist gowns, is fuzzy. Levites, Circassiennes, Polonaises, Turques...they kindof all smoosh over each other and create more confusion than clarity.

One thing that does seem to be more clear is that some of these costumes were actually costumes - fancy dress, stage, or ballet costumes - and have to be though of differently than normal dress. This is the case with my portrait here:

Mademoiselle Guimard by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1790.
I have Miss Dennice to thank for drudging up some information on Marie-Madeleine Guimard, along with the following fashion plates, which began to connect the dots on what might be going on in this portrait.

Marie-Madeleine Guimard was a French ballerina and the star of the Paris stage for a whopping 25 years. She was immensely popular and also quite rich, being admired and supported financially throughout her career by aristocrats, clergymen, and royalty, hence the many portraits of her, often depicting her as characters she portrayed, such as Terpsichore:

Mademoiselle Guimard as Terpsichore, by David, 1773-1775
What doesn't fall nicely into line is that Guimard retired from the stage in 1789, and our portrait by Jean-Baptiste Greuze was painted in 1790...or maybe it was only *finished* in 1790. Could it depict her last performance or perhaps her favorite character? (There may be evidence for or against this somewhere, but I haven't found it yet).

Anyway. Back to what she's wearing.

Here's the second link. Two, actually (these were pointed out by Dennice again, with large version from Cassidy's valuable blog):

Above - Costume for Idamé, in the Orphan of China (1779) - boy this looks a lot like a version of Guimard's dress, but is from 10 years earlier. Note on The Orphan of China - it was originally a Chinese play titled The Orphan of Zhao, and was adapted throughout Europe, in this particular case by Voltaire, and performed on stage for the first time in 1755 by the Comedie Francaise. You can read more about it here.

And here we have Costume of the Sultana used in the Comedie Francaise in the plays where there is a role for this costume (1779). Again, 10 years prior but very similar, although depicting a Sultana rather than a Westernized Chinese woman. Clearly the French didn't distinguish.

Guimard was indeed a member of the Comedie Francaise. She may be depicting an archetypal character in her portrait, and the costume could very well be her own - did she portray Idamé around 1789, or a Sultana in one of her last performances? I'm still searching for that evidence...

Madeleine Guimard retired from the stage in 1789, at the age of 46, and weathered the oncoming Revolution. The 1790 portrait seems like the last whimper of Guimard's life and career before everything changed for her, the Opera, and the country. She died in 1816.

What a fascinating, chewy bit of history. I'm even more interested in this costume now that I know more about where it may have come from, and the woman who wore it.

You can read more about Marie-Madeleine Guimard in The Art of Ballet, and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection.
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Monday, January 12, 2015

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So a Robe a la Turque is What, Exactly...?

In my first post about the Robe a la Turque, I wound up with more questions than I answered, realizing I'd only just peeked into the rabbit hole that is 18th century orientalism.

In digging a little deeper, and chatting with ladies more knowledgeable than I, my plan of action on this particular portrait...

... is to make a totally separate robe (the blue part trimmed in fur), to be worn over a round gown, with the blue robe pinned at the neckline of the gown. This will allow the sash and belt to be tied around the waist. The robe will be cut like a Polonaise, with the back pieces in one with the skirt pieces, relying on inverted pleats and tucks to get the fullness.

Of course, this is not the final word on *all* Robes a la Turque. Some appear to be open like this...

Note from Abby: I'm advised that these three portraits, each of the same girl, are Russian and this type of gown is particular to this region. While it looks like a Turque, it may instead be a type of formal Rusian court gown.

and some are definitely sewn all together, like this one...

And there are other confusing points. For instance, are all Turques what we would call "zone front?" Apparently not...

Are all Turques short-sleeved? Can't really tell...

Are all Turques cut all-in-one in the back, with no waist seam? Nooo....

And what exactly is the difference between a Turque, Circassienne, Polonaise, and Levite? What is the defining feature that makes each gown different?

Click to see this larger - these are all related, but considered different styles. But what makes this Circassienne, worn with the skirt *down*, not a Turque? And worn with the skirt pulled up, why is it not a Polonaise? Why is this Levite described "Levite as a Circassienne?"
Leave it to those cheeky French fashionistas to remind us that we really have a pretty narrow view of 18th century fashion!

I have Abby of Colonial Williamsburg and Stay-ing Alive, Cassidy of A Most Beguiling Accomplishment, and Loren of The Costumer's Closet for help with piecing this together and learning more about how to make one of these gowns.
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Friday, January 9, 2015

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18th c. Red Petticoat Re-Fashion

Woot! The first project of 2015 is complete, and piece #1 of my Robe a la Turque is ready.

Refashioned red petticoat with apron
This petticoat was once a sad, sad tube. It was too narrow and looked utterly ridiculous. What to do?

Rip it apart!

Here's what it originally looked like - way WAY too narrow
I removed the dagged flounce from the hem, cut the dags off, and used the panels to add more width to the petticoat. What was once a meager 75" hem (how the hell did I ever think that would work?) is now a proud 114.5".

Two panels on each side added plenty of fullness to the back
Of course, this came with caveats.

The panels I filched from the hem flounce are cut on the opposite grain from the skirt panels, which means the light hits them differently than the other panels in the skirt. In total I added 5 panels, two on each side seam, and one down the center front. And the panels have extensions on them too, at the top, so this is one pieced out petti...

The panels weren't quite long enough, so I added extensions at the top. I chose the top because they would be better hidden by gowns or jackets than if placed at the hem.
...but beggars can't be choosers.  

I would rather fix something and have it usable than have wasted the time, money, and fabric on something that just sits in my closet. So pieced out the wazoo on whatever grain, I don't care. It's now an excellent petticoat for use under a gown, as a foundation petticoat, or even on its own, worn with a skirted caraco and an apron to cover all my sins.

Plus it feels good to have accomplished something. Now on to the more complicated stuff!
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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

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Costume Analytics: What Is a Robe a la Turque Anyway?

It's been a long time since I've done a Costume Analytics, but I've found myself entering "new territory" with a type of 18th century gown I *thought* I understood until I took a closer look.

It's the Robe a la Turque, and indeed all things surrounding 18th century Turquerie and Orientalism.

There are quite a few images, all of them seeming to depict slightly different things, which to my novice eye was extremely confusing. So down the research rabbithole I went, and here's what I now think I know...

The portrait I want to most closely look at is "Portrait of Mademoiselle Guimard," by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, 1790.

What the shiny glory is even going on here?

Is it...a robe (kaftan) worn over a gown? Is it...a round gown with the skirt pulled up? Is it...a jacket over two skirts, or is the blue robe attached to the bodice somehow?

The Pattern

To start off, I believe this is a straight up Robe a la Turque, but done in a fancy dress, over-the-top way. A Robe a la Turque is described in the 1779 Galerie Des Modes:
It is a type of dolman that is fitted in front, without pleats and very narrow, with a folded-back collar holding to the Gown, and funnel-shapes sleeves. The underbodice is separated from the petticoat and pleated like the fourreaux a l'Anglaise.  (Translation by Cassidy of A Most Beguiling Accomplishment)
It is also referred to as a Turquoise or Robe a la Musulmane, and resembles a short-sleeved Robe a la Polonaise or Circassienne, with the front sections hanging away from the underbodice, and the back cut all in one with the skirt.

Click for larger view
The three gowns above are meant to depict the same garment, from the Galerie Des Modes. You can see the front side pieces falling away, and the back seams covered in trim and flowing into the skirt.

Admittedly, the gown above doesn't look a whole lot like our portrait, but this one does...

Click for a larger view
This gown, described in the November 1786 Cabinet Des Modes as a la Turque, is much closer in date and design to our portrait. Imagine the striped overgown in blue silk trimmed with brown fur, and the petticoat in yellow silk, pulled up to reveal an under-petticoat in corral, and we're there.

There are still some things that raise questions though. How is the sash and belt tied on if the waste is not open all the way around the back? Is the yellow petticoat split? Is Mademoiselle wearing some kind of false bit of bodice where the top edges of the yellow bodice turn down? Is this costume closer to actual 18th c. Turkish dress than the European fantasy of it? Is there artist interpretation going on here?


There seemed to be various ways Turkish costume could be worn in the late 18th c. Some Turkish garments, such as the Sultana, were meant for home only, as intimate undress, and were worn without stays and skirt supports. Other types of garments, like the Robe a la Turque, where regular wear dressed over stays, pocket hoops or bum pads, petticoats, and with a full headdress and hair style.

Just to confuse you further, here's Mrs. Trecothick wearing NOT a Robe a la Turque, but a Sultana.
In our portrait, Mademoiselle is wearing fancy dress, not regular attire, but while her skirts are fairly slim, it is my opinion that she is still wearing stays to support the bodice and her bust, along with a curiously high-necked chemise.

Fabrics and Trims

There is an extraordinary amount of texture going on in our portrait. For the base fabrics, we have what appears to be silk duchesse satin, very heavy, shiny, and luxurious. The robe is trimmed on the edges in brown fur. The sash appears to be satin with a heavy gold fringe. Please note that while our girl in the portrait is wearing mostly solid colors, don't be afraid to take it there with stripes, dots, paisleys, block-printed florals, and anything that feels Middle Eastern. Mix and match at will.
Silk Duchesse Satin from
Tomato Red Printed Silk Satin from

The petticoat edges show very European style embroidery on both sides of the silk-lined skirt, while the only other visible trim is seen on the open edges of the bodice at Mademoiselle's neckline. Lastly, the cuffs and neckline are trimmed in delicate lace, a very European touch.


The Turque costumes are all about the accessories. Pile 'em on, ladies. Mademoiselle wears a jeweled red belt that may have been velvet, along with a turban trimmed in ostrich feathers and pearls over a loose 1790s hairstyle with braids and bangs.
Red velvet and bead belt - Etsy
Get creative - this belt from the 1970s would look great. And no, it doesn't have to actually be Turkish. - belt from Etsy
Commentary and Conclusions

This portrait is stunning and enticing and confusing! In studying it closely, I've found more questions than I perhaps answered, but with an eye to making this costume, it seems like a Robe a la Turque in the 1790s silhouette is a good place to start. Parts of the painting make me think that Mademoiselle cobbled her fancy dress costume together from various things in her closet, just like we do today (or perhaps it was cobbled together for her by a marchande de modes), with indications of recognizable gown designs showing through, but obscured by the accessories and styling and possibly artistic interpretation.

It's most important to realize that the Turquerie costumes of 18th century European women were fantasies of Turkish and Middle Eastern dress, and had almost nothing to do with actual dress of these regions and people.

Here's more what Turkish women were actually wearing in the late 18th century...
They're "inspired by," which in many ways gives us a bit of freedom today in designing our own 18th century Turquerie costumes. Fashion Through History added extra Turque to her Turque with a bright colored petticoat and well-chosen accessories, while Before The Automobile kept her turque simple and stunning, setting off the bold purple with a colorful turban. It can be as clean or crazy as you like.

I have Cassidy of A Most Beguiling Accomplishment to credit and thank for her peerless research on this type of gown, and her translations of the Galerie Des Modes fashion plate descriptions. You can read all her posts on the Turque here.  Additionally, more images of Turques, Sultanas, and other Middle Eastern-inspired costumes can be found on my Pinterest board here.

Tips on Making This Costume 

  • See what's in your closet and stash first - for my version, I already have a red petticoat, sash, belt, and the fabric to make the kaftan/robe and the underbodice and sleeves.
  • Choose bright colors - bright blue, magenta, yellow, and red were popular for Turkish costumes.
  • Or choose muted colors - pastel blue, ivory, rose pink, and canary yellow were *also* popular!
  • Start with a gown or gown pattern you may already have. It could be dressed up, altered, or refashioned to get the look.
  • Trim It - fur trim on the robe was incredibly popular, along with braid on the back seams, fringe on cuffs and hems, and embroidery or metallic trims on the edges of the bodice, sleeves, and petticoat.
  • Don't forget to accessorize - a turban of any design and a jeweled belt and/or enormous fringed sash will make any gown look more Middle Eastern.
  • Hunt eBay, thrift stores, Etsy, and belly dance supply shops for accessories, or make your own

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